Google is now giving users more control over how much access app developers have over your information. Experts welcome the change but question how effective some of the newer tools will be for users.
Among the many announcements made on stage during the Google I/O 2021 keynote, the tech giant announced app developers have to give users the option to select between "Precise" or "Approximate" location. Precise location data will collect location from GPS as well as Wi-Fi and mobile cell data, while approximate (or coarse location) only uses Wi-Fi or mobile cell data and is limited to a city block or a two-kilometer radius. This is different than what was offered in Android 11, which added the "one-time" permission for apps that use location, your camera, or your microphone. This was an extension from Android 10's "while-in-use" permission for background location that allowed you to prevent any app from tracking you while you weren't using it.
Apps that typically collect this kind of information are navigating apps like Google Maps, or a fitness tracking app. Still, many users are unaware that many apps collect location data for ads.
Google also said that in Android 12, users will be able to turn off an app's access to their microphone and camera by default and this will be enabled device-wide. Users will also see an icon in the top-right of their phone that will show if the camera is in active use. Google said that when new apps are downloaded, it will still ask a user to access a cellphone's camera or mic, even if the user has turned off this feature.
Nishanth Sastry, a professor at the University of Surrey in the U.K. and specializes in the privacy of tracking technologies, said in an interview that it was a long time coming that Google gave users the option to shut off access to their cameras and microphones.
Sastry explained that not all apps need access to your mic or camera, and only a small minority of applications have misused that type of information. He also said Google giving users far more control is always a good thing.
Blocking camera and mic is good for high-risk individuals
Jules Polonetsky, CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum, an industry-backed nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., said in an interview that this type of control is a "good way to really lock down your phone for people who are at high-risk and who might worry that their phone could be remotely compromised."
He explained that high-risk individuals could be a dissident or a person who opposes official policy, especially that of an authoritarian state, or even a victim of domestic violence and is worried about their ex-partner.
"When you provide a platform that several billion people use, the number of people who need a particular privacy and security feature end up being in the millions," Polonetsky said.
Google is giving the impression it cares about your privacy
Polonetsky said that allowing apps to differentiate between precise and approximate location is an important feature because most apps only require a general location but are more than happy to ask for precise location because it's "valuable for ad targeting."
But with this new option, Polonetsky warns that Google must ensure it is doing the right work in the back end to ensure that this feature can't be "abused where an app can leverage having imprecise location over time to reconstruct where you are precisely."
Sastry agreed and worried that giving an option doesn't actually limit the amount of information that an app developer collects.
The overall changes seem to be a good move by Google, but Sastry says that mostly it seems like Google is giving the impression that it cares about your privacy by giving you control.
Changes create consistency for app developers
Sumit Bhatia, director of innovation and policy at the Cybersecure Catalyst at Toronto's Ryerson University, agreed with Sastry and added that the move to give users the option isn't as ground-breaking as some may think it is.
"It's perception and it is not necessarily going to change anything from the user's perspective, except make them feel like Google is doing some things for the benefit of them but really from Google's perspective they're still able to use that data very effectively," he said.
Bhatia added that even if a user has approximate location turned on, app developers will be able to collect information from the radius that you're traveling and use that to create user profiles.
"They're still using that data to profile you geologically, so while that might not be (targeted) advertising-related, they're still profiling that's being created for the purposes of larger advertising," he said.
Polonetsky added that typically developers have never had to explain why they were collecting data, but now this will push them to convince users why collecting location data will be important to them.
"The challenge for a lot of developers is they don't necessarily have experience talking about these sorts of privacy issues, and we see some of them really stumbling," he said. "Now they're going to need legal advice to make sure they properly (explain) otherwise they could be on the hook if they simply say 'We want location to improve your experience.'"
Have you listened to this week's Android Central Podcast?
Every week, the Android Central Podcast brings you the latest tech news, analysis and hot takes, with familiar co-hosts and special guests.
Sign up for Black Friday email alerts!
Get the hottest deals available in your inbox plus news, reviews, opinion, analysis and more from the Android Central team.
Shruti Shekar is Android Central's managing editor. She was born in India, brought up in Singapore, but now lives in Toronto and couldn't be happier. She started her journalism career as a political reporter in Ottawa, Canada's capital, and then made her foray into tech journalism at MobileSyrup and most recently at Yahoo Finance Canada. When work isn't on her mind, she loves working out, reading thrillers, watching the Raptors, and planning what she's going to eat the next day.